Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 8, October 2002

Karen Kelsky

Women on the Verge:
Japanese Women, Western Dreams

Durham, NC, Duke University Press,
ISBN 0-8223-2816-X, pp. 295,
US$18.95 paperback

review by Mark McLelland

  1. In 1991 I was working as an editor in the Tokyo headquarters of the American publishing house Charles Tuttle Inc. which had brought out an English-Japanese phrasebook entitled Making Out in Japanese. The book provided simple, direct, pick-up lines for English-speakers to use to flirt with and hopefully take home Japanese partners. It quickly became Tuttle's best-selling title and a second volume with more of the same was hurriedly prepared. Soon after the book's release, Tuttle's marketing manager began to bring in articles about the book from the Japanese tabloid press and pass them round the office. Despite the fact that phrases in the book were divided according to gender[1](so that appropriate phrases could be used by men or women) the sensational and slightly hysterical tone of these articles showed that the book had touched a nerve with Japanese men who angrily denounced the fact that a phrasebook helping 'foreign' [gaijin][2] men pick up 'our' women had become such a best seller.
  2. One female American editor, too, was incensed at the book's popularity, for, in her mind, it was being bought by male gaijin 'losers' who, because they were incapable of establishing relationships with western women, were pursuing more na´ve and compliant Japanese women instead. This attitude was (and still is) quite common among expatriate western women in Japan and is exemplified by a cartoon in a magazine aimed at Japan's foreign community The Alien (February 1998)

    which shows a greasy, unattractive youth flipping burgers observed by two white women who comment 'geek'. In the next frame he arrives in Japan and is transformed into 'Charisma Man' surrounded by adoring Japanese women. The same white women look on and, again comment 'geek'. The apparent popularity of gaijin men with Japanese women clearly touched a raw nerve on both sides of the racial and gender divide.
  3. Karen Kelsky's groundbreaking study Women on the Verge: Japanese Women, Western Dreams analyses the historical specificities, socio-economic relations, gender ideologies and global flows that have so overdetermined relationships between white men and Japanese women. It is a bold and provocative book that will no doubt cause controversy.
  4. Kelsky does not deny that human relationships are the product of individual desires and preferences but she is primarily concerned with those supra-individual discursive formations that inescapably position white men and Japanese women in a specific economy of desire that works to disadvantage white women and Japanese men. As Kelsky points out, her purpose 'is not to cast aspersions on Japanese female—white male couples', rather she is concerned to point out the dangers in 'the endlessly repeated feedback loop' that occurs when 'representations of interracial romance as a symbol of redemptive pluralism and solution to the problem of Japanese sexism and insularity are recirculated back to Japan' (p. 230; emphasis in original). Although Kelsky acknowledges the potentially liberative and enabling aspects of these narratives of desire, she points out how they rely upon 'a Western country as a model for uncritical emulation' (p. 236) that ultimately reinforces orientalist assumptions privileging white men over both women and men of other races.
  5. In researching and attempting to explicate these forces, Kelsky time and again came across indignation and resentment—from western men who rejected her suggestion that their sudden ascent in the desirability stakes was the product of socio-historical forces—and from Japanese women who insisted that they just 'happened' to have fallen in love with a foreigner. Given the large number of interracial marriages between white men and Japanese women in the Japanese Studies academy, it comes as no surprise that Kelsky met with considerable hostility to her project. She points out that 'I was told, more than once, that this was not an appropriate topic of academic inquiry' (p. 237). In the text Kelsky is honest about the many moments of self-doubt and trauma that she experienced in the process of the research. Indeed, Kelsky's own positionality is central to the narrative as it unfolds in the book, for her own status as a white woman married to a Japanese man was a lived contradiction that caused strain between herself and her Japanese female informants for whom 'the West' was a symbol of both liberation and desire.
  6. Although Kelsky's narrative is not primarily about interracial sexual relationships, it is this element of the book which will undoubtedly catch most readers' attention. This is unfortunate as there is a much larger and more significant story being told here. Kelsky's main theme is a phenomenon, apparent in a variety of women's media and social practices in Japan, that she terms 'oppositional internationalism' (p. 88). Kelsky points to a discourse of internationalism, particularly the promotion of English-language skills as 'the means by which women enter bodily into alternative systems of thought and value' (p. 101) that implicitly serves to reflect back the perceived inadequacies of the sex and gender system as it functions in contemporary Japan. She suggests that Japanese women's 'flirtation with the foreign' serves as:

      a profound questioning of domestic Japanese expectations concerning the female life course, culminating in many cases in the assertion of a 'new self' [atarashii jibun] that is based on a broad and deep shift of allegiance from what women describe as insular and outdated Japanese values to what they characterize as an expansive, liberating international space of free and unfettered self-expression, personal discovery and romantic freedom (p. 87).

  7. Kelsky gives a realistic account of the constraints that many young women experience in the Japanese labour system where they are consigned to non-career secretarial positions for the few years between college and marriage. However, rather than passively accepting their lot and diligently depositing their savings in the bank, Kelsky argues that many OLs (office ladies) with their flexible schedules and high disposable incomes, develop sophisticated patterns of consumption in which foreign (western) goods, in particular, are important signifiers of cultural capital. Japanese men, with their large workloads and greater incentives to invest in their career, are largely left out of this consumption cycle, so that 'Western goods [are] entirely contained as signifiers within a largely self-sufficient OL universe of style and status' (p. 135).
  8. About 1987, according to Kelsky, a new phenomenon became discernible: the consumption of 'the "gaijin lover", the exotic sexual experience that represented the final frontier of the foreign left to consume' (p. 136). Within Japan gaijin men were sought out in the fashionable nightlife district of Roppongi in Tokyo as well as in similar areas of the port cities of Yokohama and Kobe and around Japan's many American army bases. Popular foreign tourist spots frequented by OLs included Hawaii, Saipan, Bali, New York and the US West Coast. Fantasies of sex with gaijin men appeared in manga and novels written by and for women, including a genre of eromanga (erotic comics) known as 'ladies comics'. Kelsky points out (p.149) that one of the most popular of these, Comic Amour, regularly features stories centred on white men.[3] In 1988 Cosmopolitan Japan was able to comment in an article illustrated with photos of 'heroic-looking white men' that 'We'd all like to be seen walking down the street with a gaijin boyfriend, wouldn't we, girls?' (p. 143).
  9. However, this new interest expressed by some Japanese women did not go unnoticed in the mainstream press. Men's media responded to this trend with outrage. Shukan Gendai accused Japanese women who visited Hawaii of 'dancing on the tables in discos with their underpants showing for all to see'. Shukan Hoseki said of Japanese women tourists that 'they may all pretend to be little ladies, but actually, in their hearts, each one wants to be the first to get a gaijin to bed' (p. 137). The media began to brand Japanese women who sought out foreign men '"yellow cabs", a name allegedly to have been invented by American men who supposedly saw these women as "yellow" and as easy to "ride" as taxis' (p. 134) although it seems that the term was actually invented and popularised by a Japanese journalist. Ironically, the negative media attention given to this phenomenon wherein women's sexual freedom was yet again lambasted (Japan's extensive sex trade and the well-attested phenomenon of Japanese men's sex tourism, of course, went unmentioned) also provided Japanese women with the opportunity to speak back. Journalist Kudo Akiko summarised the many complaints Japanese women were expressing about Japanese men in an article that appeared in the women's magazine Fujin Koron in 1990:

      The reasons Japanese women reject Japanese men are not just physical.... Women evaluate them badly in all areas—'they are childish and disgusting', 'they have a bad attitude toward women', 'they are fake and dishonest', 'they are narrow minded', 'they are bad mannered', 'they can't take care of themselves', 'they can't do housework' ... Japanese men are the opposite of the Japanese GNP—they are the lowest in the world! (p. 138).

  10. Kelsky refers to women's repudiation of Japanese men as both 'gleeful and hyperbolic' (p. 139), suggesting that 'by speaking and writing on the charms, sexual and other wise, of the foreign male, Japanese women communicated to themselves and to Japanese men, their rage against the gender status quo' (p. 139).
  11. Once, again, it is important to stress that Kelsky is not passing judgement on particular individuals' relationships, but is instead pointing to a specific discursive regime that inescapably politicises any interracial coupling in Japan. As she mentions on several occasions, as a white woman married to a Japanese man (thereby seen as deviant both by western men and Japanese women) she was repeatedly placed in a situation where she had to defend this aberrant choice. As Kelsky argues 'the Orientalist West has already established the racial hierarchy of potency and impotence that sets up its own mimetic appropriation in Japanese women's strategies of resistance' (p. 186)—through transgressing this hierarchy and intimately aligning herself with the subaltern Japanese male, Kelsky found herself haplessly precipitated into a discourse not of her making. As she points out, when the foundations for a choice of lover are questioned 'everyone becomes uncomfortable' (p. 187). This book is as much her story as it is that of her Japanese informants.
  12. This is a difficult and at times painful book to read that will no doubt ring true for anyone who has lived in Japan for any period from the late 80s through the 90s. Kelsky should be congratulated for having persevered with a topic that caused her so much anxiety and distress, both personally and professionally. It was clearly a difficult story to tell, but I foresee that for many people it is going to prove an even more difficult one to listen to.


    [1] Men's and women's language in Japan can be very different—women generally being expected to use a more polite register than men. Choice of personal pronouns, honorifics and sentence particles expressing emphasis also differ between the sexes.

    [2] Gaijin is a contraction of the term gaikokujin meaning 'person from an outside country' and is faintly derogatory. When used without modification it usually signifies a white North American or European.

    [3] It is interesting to bear in mind that Japanese gay comics, of which there are six major ones, seldom feature stories about foreign men. Except in small clique publications, foreign men are never featured as objects of desire in Japanese gay men's narratives (see Mark McLelland, Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities, Curzon Press, 2000, chapter 5).


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL:

HTML last modified: 18 March 2008 1039 by Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright